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Rosenberg's Guide to Reality

Posted: 01/05/12 02:57 PM ET

A new book has been making the rounds and getting a very bad press. It is The Atheist's Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions, by Alex Rosenberg, a philosopher of science at Duke University. What Rosenberg has done is to take the scientific principle of reductionism and apply it to questions science is not equipped to answer.

Has science found empirical evidence of God? No, therefore, Rosenberg concludes, there isn't one. Has science detected meaning in the universe? No, therefore there isn't any. Does science define right and wrong? No, therefore there isn't right or wrong either. And so on.

Such a book is the easiest book to write, especially if you don't care what people will say about it or you. If we rule out complexity, the unknown (as in what we don't understand yet), the subtle, the obscure, the inexplicable, not to mention the ineffable, then we can, without effort, explain the world according to what our senses tell us is so.

Rosenberg begins his book by offering what he refers to as "the right answers" to fundamental questions, beginning with "Does God exist?" His answer, naturally, is "No." But further down he offers this answer to the question "Does history have any meaning or purpose?" Rather than just saying no again, he slips up and quips, "It's full of sound and fury and signifies nothing."

As we know, this is Macbeth's answer to the fundamental questions of existence. Let's be clear. What Macbeth says is not Shakespeare's answer to fundamental questions. Rather it is the direct result of Macbeth's actions. Macbeth has destroyed his humanity by murdering King Duncan in order to become king. His actions result in his denial of meaning, his rationalization that his actions prove that nothing has meaning or purpose.

The fact is that by finding meaning in our own lives, we imbue the universe with meaning also. Does the universe have meaning? The only "right answer" is that we know that it is a lawful place. We have the formulas to prove it. E, in fact, does equal mc2, and a human mind figured that out. Einstein said he wanted to know the mind of God. His remark was a metaphor, not necessarily a religious affirmation, and it was not, as Rosenberg would assert, evidence of an illusion. After all the universe did come into being.

As a discipline science is not designed to answer the "Great Questions." As a philosopher of science Rosenberg should certainly know that. His discipline has no business dealing with these questions. A question of meaning in science is an answer to a question like, what is the meaning of the word 'science?' Otherwise, science leaves meaning alone.

Part of the book's description refers to giving us a "nice nihilism," which is an oxymoron if ever there was one. Nihilism, no matter how much powdered sugar you sprinkle on it, is still the philosophy of nothingness and the denial of real existence or the possibility of an objective basis for truth.

That Rosenberg wishes, as he puts it, to have some fun while he explores nihilism is an insult to intelligence, not to mention good taste. If he truly wanted to do that he should have distanced himself from Macbeth, the darkest of Shakespeare's great tragic figures. Personally, I'll take Hamlet as my companion to look for meaning and humanity in human existence.

In sum, Rosenberg would no doubt say that his book is for atheists by an atheist and it is not for believers or agnostics. True, but had he begun the book by saying "if your answers to the "Great Questions" are as follows, how do we deal with the issues that naturally arise from that conviction? As it is, however, he writes from a most peculiar stance and tone, like "Life sucks, have fun." It isn't funny. Here's funny: In Annie Hall, Woody Allen tells Diane Keaton that life is either horrific or miserable, so if you're only miserable, be grateful.

 
 
 

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